Search results for "driverless"

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The Power of Poo

Lydia Kallipoliti cracks open yesterday's sealed techno utopias
The Architecture of Closed Worlds; or, What Is the Power of Shit? Lydia Kallipoliti Lars Muller Publishers $40.00 Where’s the future we were promised? It’s hard to follow popular culture in the early 21st century without encountering variations on this question. Almost everybody remembers The Jetsons. This show is usually the go-to example for those who still—for some reason—want a jetpack (or, perhaps even less realistically, George Jetson’s three-hour work week). Saturday morning cartoons may have showed us the shiny future in our living rooms, but the futures of the 20th century were designed in the workshops, laboratories, and drafting studios of architects and designers, and most of that never made it to television. Lydia Kallipoliti’s new book, The Architecture of Closed Worlds; or, What Is the Power of Shit?, tells us, as the subtitle suggests, a messier set of stories about the hidden production history of design futures.

If commuters dream of a Utopia with flying cars, then urbanists, engineers, architects, and building scientists yearn for structures that clean themselves, eat their own waste, recycle their own water, and never need to tap an electrical grid. These are the “closed worlds” of the book’s title. This book is a catalogue of attempts, over an 80-year time span, to create self-sustaining structures that can support human life. But Kallipoliti shows that, besides acting on mere biology and its technical problems, the image of the closed world is a cultural agent as well. This is a dream that’s about more than survival; it’s about independence and the freedom to explore and expand life into hostile or unknown territories. The closed worlds here bridge the space between mainstream architectural history, science fiction, space science, pure engineering experiment, and countercultural autonomy. There are spaceships and communes, quack medicine and fad diets. There are brave explorers risking their own lives (Jacques Cousteau’s team living on the continental shelf), snarky art projects as cultural commentary (Ant Farm’s “clean air” inflatables), astronaut trainees getting sick on their own waste (in a 1960 simulation at NASA Langley), utopian technocrats (Masdar City), and even hamsters (SEEK). Of course, Bucky Fuller makes several appearances.

The book is organized like one of the classic “catalogues” of 20th century future studies. American audiences will recognize antecedents like Paula Taylor’s The Kids’ Whole Future Catalogue, from 1982, a riff on Stewart Brand’s 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, which featured underwater living, space settlements, and driverless cars. Another precedent, from the U.K., is the Usborne Book of the Future series, which presented domed cities, space elevators, and two-way wireless video chat via wristwatch. Like these books, Kallipoliti’s gives us a format that’s easy to browse casually at a surface level, and it’s just as easy to get lost in its depths. Also like these other collections, this book is lavishly illustrated. The period photographs and drawings are complemented and unified by a series of complex and compelling diagrams by Temitope Olujobi, showing the technical networks that these structures weave in order to create and sustain their environmental conditions.

But Closed Worlds is not a work of optimistic retrofuturism. Kallipoliti includes, along with each project entry, a section on “Key Failures.” Waste builds up, maintenance takes time, seals leak, crops fail—but even more broadly, hubris exists. The reach of these would-be world-makers often exceeds their grasp. These failures bring the projects back down to Earth, and Kallipoliti has invited a collection of practitioners and critics to join her in short essays that examine what it all means. These “Commentary” entries for select projects help contextualize the work in contemporary terms. No hagiography, the stories that Kallipoliti is telling in her book are far stranger and dirtier than simple nostalgia for lost futures would allow, and these stories are all the more instructive for their open-endedness.

This resistance to offer up easy answers is the book’s strength, but it can also leave the reader a little confused and maybe wanting. The diagrams by Olujobi are, like the projects themselves, fascinating. They should be poster size to do justice to their intricacy. But, again like in the projects, the complexity here can be overwhelming at times. As we try to follow the movement of material and energy from component to component, coded in the custom notation and color scheme invented just for the book and its accompanying exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, it’s hard not to get dizzy and lose sight of the big picture. Does this catalogue of complex failures mean that any attempt to design systems this complicated will be doomed? What is the nature of the implied openness that is the complement to the closed nature of the worlds catalogued here? Is the closure ever really complete in the first place? Maybe the crucial question that we’ve yet to grapple with, as designers, is right there in Kallipoliti’s subtitle: What indeed is the power of shit?

Here in the 21st century, architects are constantly reminded that the construction and maintenance of the built environment takes a disproportionate toll on the quality and health of the unbuilt environment. Kallipoliti’s open questions about Closed Worlds are a vital reminder that these conditions—and our attempts to address them and answer her questions—are not new. As we discuss how built structures can, through partial or complete closure of their own waste-to-value cycles, mitigate their impact on the world, Kallipoliti’s book reminds us that this larger world is itself both “closed” and “open.” We, as a technical species, and as designers, have already begun to intervene in those complex, incomprehensible networks that Olujobi is drawing, but at the scale of the planet. Whether we have intended to be or not, we are ourselves the makers of a closed world, and we might as well get good at it.

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Roll Out

Driverless shuttles set to take over the Brooklyn Navy Yard later this year
New York City’s (and the state’s) first self-driving shuttles are arriving before the end of the second quarter, but they won’t be making life-or-death decisions on Manhattan’s busy streets. Instead, the Boston-based autonomous driving startup Optimus Ride, which was spun off from MIT, will bring driverless shuttles to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The 300-acre industrial campus is seemingly the perfect place to test autonomous vehicles (AVs) within the five boroughs. The yard is isolated, about a 15-minute walk from the nearest subway station (although a shuttle runs between the two), though a new ferry stop will open at the Yard in May. The enclosed Navy Yard also uses private streets, negating the need for city or state approval, and drastically reduces the congestion—both other vehicles and humans—that these shuttles will expect to face. Thanks to the Yard’s relative isolation, the entire area can be geofenced off or mapped down to the slightest detail ahead of the shuttles’ deployment to prevent them from leaving the bounded area. The technology has been used to great effect elsewhere, namely AV testing grounds where every variable can be controlled; the difficulty in expanding the use of self-driving cars has namely been to real-world unpredictability. According to Optimus Ride, the company's shuttles will offer the Navy Yard’s 9,000 employees a convenient way to get around the campus. The vehicles will loop from the new ferry stop and around to the public-facing Flushing Avenue side. While the company hasn’t released details on the model of shuttle it will be using, the company has previously deployed battery-powered vehicles capable of reaching speeds of up to 25-miles-per-hour elsewhere. It’s unclear what this will mean for the shuttle service that already operates on the Yard’s streets. “If this pilot abides by insurance and other non-traffic laws and remains confined to the Brooklyn Navy Yard—which is private—then it can operate,” a spokesperson for the mayor, Seth Stein, told The Verge. “The mayor has voiced his strong opposition to testing a new technology on our busy streets.” Optimus Ride also announced that it would be bringing its self-driving shuttles to the streets of Paradise Valley Estates, a private 80-acre planned community Fairfield, California. The move means that Optimus Ride will have AVs in four states, but for the time being, it seems that only self-contained, wealthier enclaves will benefit as the technology matures.
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Man vs. Machine

Waymo's self-driving cars in Arizona elicit violence
Residents of Chandler, Arizona, are waging war against the city’s new fleet of self-driving cars. Distraught locals have slashed tires, pointed guns, and thrown themselves in front of Waymo vehicles in order to prevent them from transporting passengers, according to The Arizona Republic. In April 2017, technology development company Waymo started a trial of self-driving taxis in Phoenix, the first of their kind. This past month, the service continued to expand as it launched its first commercial self-driving car service called Waymo One, where people of the Phoenix metropolitan area can request a driverless car through the simple use of a cell-phone app. Since Waymo vehicles took to the streets some two years ago, 21 rioting incidents have been reported to the police, particularly in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. While safety concerns seem to have triggered many of the violent outbursts, other locals see Waymo as a threat to their livelihood. People are worried that technology is going to replace them in the workforce. Taxi drivers across the world, for instance, have fought against the rapid dissemination of Uber and other ride-hailing services. Waymo's current controversy is just the latest in a series of incidents where autonomous vehicles or ride-sharing companies are getting into trouble. Last March, the self-driving car industry as a whole suffered the ultimate backlash when a self-driving Uber SUV mindlessly hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.
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RIDE OR DIE

Waymo's self-driving taxi service goes live
Self-driving cars are ever inching closer to feasibility, as the Alphabet-owned company Waymo announced the official rollout of its self-driving taxi service today. The launch of Waymo One in Arizona, although only initially available to research testers from Waymo’s research program, is a milestone that critics thought Waymo wouldn’t be able to reach before the end of 2018. This year was a pretty dour period for real-world autonomous vehicle (AV) testing. Uber drew ire and shut down its self-driving car operations in Arizona after a test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street. Federal regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shut down a self-driving school bus program in Florida. And in Chandler, Arizona, just outside of Waymo’s AV testing ground, residents complained that the self-driving cars would regularly stop without warning at a T-shaped intersection and require that the human safety drivers take control. Waymo is starting small with a pool of invite-only riders, but the launch today fulfills a pledge the company had made to get its fleet of AVs on the road before the end of the year. Customers can hail an autonomous vehicle in the Metro Phoenix area through the Waymo ridesharing app in the cities of Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa. Each car will be decked out with touchscreens, where passengers can connect with a Waymo rider support agent to have questions about their trip answered. In-car chaperones will be present during the first phase of Waymo One’s rollout, but moving forward, the company wants to graduate to fully-driverless rides. The early rider program will continue, and test riders will have early access to features that Waymo wants to include in their taxi service. The company is hoping to use the feedback from its Phoenix-area riders to eventually expand the program to other cities and the general public.
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Scuttled Shuttles

Federal government shuts down self-driving school bus program in Florida
The dreams of a fully autonomous school bus are on hold for a little while longer, at least in Babcock Ranch, Florida. On October 19, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered a complete halt to the self-driving school bus program in the Florida town, which had been transporting kids to-and-from school along a three-block stretch. Transdev North America had been operating the Easy Mile EZ10 Gen II shuttle as part of a two-month pilot program within the fully solar-powered, tech-forward community. The shuttle, which seats 12 and included a human supervisor ready to take over in case the “bus” encountered an unexpected obstacle, has a top speed of 8-miles-per-hour and was programmed to brake automatically. The bus was just one part of Transdev’s initiative to launch a network of autonomous shuttles (AVs) across North America, with Babcock Ranch as a testing ground. While the shuttle never picked up more than five students at a time, only operated one day a week during the five-week trial period, and only picked up and dropped off passengers in designated areas, the NHTSA didn’t mince words, calling the shuttle “unlawful.” According to the NHTSA, Transdev had only been granted permission to import their shuttles as demonstration vehicles and not to transport children. "Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety," said Heidi King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator, in a press release.  "Using a non-compliant test vehicle to transport children is irresponsible, inappropriate, and in direct violation of the terms of Transdev’s approved test project." While the NHTSA claims it wasn't informed about Transdev’s plans to use one of its shuttles to ferry students, the pilot program had been written about extensively and Transdev released several promotional videos touting their self-driving bus. Transdev, for its part, claims to have discussed the school bus shuttle with the NHTSA but that they had never received a letter asking them to stop operating it, and that they voluntarily shut down the program. The company also claims that every safety precaution was taken and that the shuttle was only operated along quite private roads. In its own release, Transdev states that “This small pilot was operating safely, without any issues, in a highly controlled environment. Transdev believed it was within the requirements of the testing and demonstration project previously approved by NHTSA for ridership by adults and children using the same route.” Whether the shutdown was over a miscommunication or because Transdev demonstrably overstepped its certification remains to be seen.
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Sleeper Car

Self-driving homes could be the future of affordable housing
The convergence of new technologies including artificial intelligence, the internet of things, electric cars, and drone delivery systems suggests an unlikely solution to the growing housing crisis. In the next few years, we may use an app on our smartphones to notify our houses to pick us up or drop us off. Honda recently announced the IeMobi Concept. It is an autonomous mobile living room that attaches and detaches from your home. When parked, the vehicle becomes a 50-square-foot living or workspace. Mercedes-Benz Vans rolled out an all-electric digitally-connected van with fully integrated cargo space and drone delivery capability, and Volvo just unveiled its 360c concept vehicle that serves as either a living room or mobile office. In other cases, some folks are simply retrofitting existing vehicles. One couple in Oxford England successfully converted a Mercedes Sprinter van into a micro-home that includes 153 square feet of living space, a complete kitchen, a sink, a fridge, a four-person dining area, and hidden storage spaces. For those who are either unwilling or unable to own a home, self-driving van houses could become a convenient and affordable solution.  Soon, our mobile driverless vehicles may allow us to work from our cars and have our laundry and a hot meal delivered at the same time. In Los Angeles alone, it is estimated that 15,000 people are already living in their cars and in most countries it is perfectly legal to live in your vehicle. The consequences of autonomous home living are far-reaching. It could radically reduce carbon footprints and living expenses by combining all transportation and housing needs in one space.  The new need for overnight parking creates new economic and social opportunities. New types of pop-up communities will emerge with charging stations, retail stores, laundry facilities, restaurants, and social spaces. The freedom of a van-home lifestyle suggests new modes of living which include more leisure time and less time tethered to a job. The impact on cities, economies, infrastructures, inter-city travel, and the way we live and organize ourselves are immeasurable and scarcely completely imagined. As Volvo says “Why fly when you can be driven?” Soon you may be able to avoid airport lines and delays. You will be able to arrive at your destination rested and refreshed after being driven overnight in your personal portable bedroom.
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Driving While Robot

What role do architects have in a driverless future?
The rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is inevitable and—depending on who you ask—they’ll either eliminate car crashes and save the environment, or muscle out pedestrians from the street, steal our personal data, and create biblical levels of gridlock in our cities. But despite the divide over how the technology should be implemented, the common thread that runs between apostles and bashers alike is the belief that cities, planners, and architects are woefully unprepared for the changes self-driving cars will bring. In November 2017, the AIA held an event centered on the topic, "Anticipating the Driverless City,” and the furor seems justified following the death of a pedestrian at the grille of an autonomous Uber car. “Planners think in 30-year increments, and autonomous vehicles are already hitting the streets today,” Nico Larco, co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon, said. “Urban planners should be terrified.” Larco’s not wrong. Only a few states even have regulations for driverless cars, let alone ideas for designing a future without parking. With Ford launching self-delivering pizzas in Miami, Google’s Waymo rolling out an autonomous ridesharing service in Arizona, and driverless taxis making inroads in cities all over the world, architects and planners will either need to look ahead or be stuck in triage mode. Sam Schwartz, former New York City Traffic Commissioner from 1982 to 1986 and founder of his eponymous traffic and transportation planning and engineering firm, has categorized the potential futures as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” The “good” A utopic self-driving car scenario would have driverless cars constantly circulating and on the prowl for riders, while providing “first mile, last mile” access to and from souped-up mass-transit corridors. If AVs truly take off and replace a sizable portion of manned cars on the street, then parking lots, garages, and driveways—not to mention thousands of square feet of on-street parking per block—would sit vacant. Walking, cycling, and autonomous (electric) buses would feature heavily in a multi-modal transit mix, and streets would narrow as bioswales and strips of public parks replaced parking spots. There has been movement on designing for that future; FXCollaborative, HOK, Arup, KPF, and other prominent firms have all put forward scalable designs for reclaiming the urban fabric. Speculation has already forced public officials in Pittsburgh to put together plans for integrating self-driving cars into the city’s fabric by 2030, and developers in New York are building flexible parking garages that can easily be converted for other uses. However, the key to actually enacting any of these schemes lies in large-scale government intervention. Without a concerted top-down reclamation and conversion of unused streets, AV-centric zoning policies, or renewed investment in mass-transportation options, cities will never be able to integrate AVs into their infrastructure. The largest hurdle to achieving the “good” future isn’t technological, it’s political; even self-driving evangelists have conceded that a laissez-faire approach might result in increased traffic on the road. The “bad” Uber, Lyft, Google, and a raft of competitors are already jostling to bring self-driving taxis to market so that these companies won’t have to pay human drivers. Under the guise of preventing traffic fatalities—there were nearly 40,000 lives lost in the U.S. alone in 2017—the big players are lobbying all levels of government to allow their AVs on the street. If vehicle miles traveled per person in AVs were allowed to increase without intervention, society could slide into an ugly scenario. This dystopic outcome would see mass transit hollowed out by a lack of funding and pedestrians shunted out of the streets in the name of safety. Studies have already shown that existing ridesharing services increase congestion and cause bus services to deteriorate, and if commuters get fed up with slow commutes and turn to ridesharing services, mass transit options could be sent into death spirals due to decreased revenue. Driverless cars are often touted as being spatially efficient, especially as they can join each other to form road trains—tightly packed groups of vehicles moving along optimized routes. But considering how much space on the road 40 bicycles or 40 commuters in a bus would take up, the flaw in that thinking becomes self-evident. Even if artificial intelligence can route traffic more effectively than a human, putting more cars on the road offsets the gains in speed by decreasing the amount of space available. Although computers might be great at coordinating with each other, the external human element will remain a wild card no matter what. Well-planned cities that prioritize walkability and ground-level experience would place pedestrians over passengers, but a worst-case scenario could see cyclists and walkers forced to wear locator beacons so that AVs could “see” them better, while hemmed in behind fencing. The “ugly” The worst driverless car scenarios take Le Corbusier’s famous claim that “the city built for speed is the city built for success” to heart. The high-speed arterial thoroughfares Corbusier envisioned in The Radiant City were realized in the destructive city planning policies of the 1950s and '60s, but municipalities have spent heavily to correct their mistakes 50 years later. Much in the same way that widening roads actually worsens traffic, if planners and architects ignore or give deference to driverless cars and continue to prioritize car culture in their decisions, congestion, gridlock, and withered public transit systems are sure to follow. The adoption of self-driving technology will likely birth new building typologies with unique needs, from centralized hubs where the cars park themselves to AV repair shops. As futurist Jeff Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson/Nygaard, points out, self-driving cars aren’t a new concept. Their lineage can be directly traced to ideas introduced by GE at the 1939 World’s Fair, but this is the first time that the technology has caught up with the vision. Planners and politicians have had 80 years to grapple with solutions; they can’t afford to take any longer.
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Drive Up, Not Thru

Boeing to sell flying taxis
Aerospace company Boeing aims to begin selling electric people-carrying drones within the next ten years. “I think it will happen faster than any of us understand,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told Bloomberg. “Real prototype vehicles are being built right now. So the technology is very doable.”
Boeing's announcement is the latest in an explosion of news—and corresponding excitement—around driverless cars and other forms of transportation previously found only in science fiction. On April 2, fully autonomous vehicles can hit the streets in California, while truck company Peterbilt is pioneering technology for self-driving big rigs. Las Vegas, meanwhile, is testing a self-driving public transit shuttle, while further west, Uber and NASA are teaming up to bring flying cars to Los Angeles. And let's not forget about the Hyperloop: Elon Musk has received exploratory permits for a New York to D.C. route for the ultra-fast conveyance he's developed, and this week, Virgin Hyperloop One debuted its first pod prototype in Dubai.
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Robots in Disguise

Driverless cars set to roll in California after rule change
Come April 2, California will see fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) hit the streets after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ruled that the cars don’t need a human in the driver’s seat. First proposed in October, the change means that the 50 companies registered to test self-driving cars in the state could start to ramp up the scale of their projects. The changes come as other states, like Arizona, have seen tech companies ramp up their investments in self-driving cars thanks to a lack regulations. Once the rule takes effect, these vehicles will only need an operator to monitor the car remotely, similar to flying a drone, just in case. Uber, Google’s self-driving car initiative Waymo, General Motors and other big-name players in the industry hailed the move as a major step forward in rolling out AVs on a mass scale. "This is a significant step towards an autonomous future in the state, and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles," Uber spokesperson, Sarah Abboud told The Sacramento Bee. "With this effort complete, we look forward to working with California as it develops regulations applicable to autonomous trucks." Even though it seems as if California is easing off the gas, companies will still be required to report their "disengagements," or human takeovers. While the self-driving cars being tested for mass market production use an array of cameras, radar sensors and satellite data to navigate, the technology isn’t perfect, and most AVs are tested in flat, open landscapes without pedestrians. After April we might see self-driving cars expand their reach onto busy streets or highways, but a full-on integration with manned traffic still seems unlikely. The industry leader in disengagements, Waymo, still reports needing a human takeover about every 5,600 miles, even as the company has announced that it would be launching a driverless ride sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona later this year. Despite the promised safety and environmental benefits that fully autonomous cars would bring (not to mention self-delivering pizzas), consumer advocacy groups have complained that rushing to bring AVs to real streets could endanger lives. Nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog railed against the decision, releasing a statement accusing the DMV of prioritizing speed over safety. Although advancements in self-driving technology have been promising, the group wrote, “Even if the robot cars were to reach the highest level of perfection (which they are nowhere near, despite what clever marketing might have you believe!), robot cars will co-exist in a world with other humans, who will continue to act in unpredictable, non-robotic ways. Put simply: the robot car world will not be perfect, despite what the technocrats may have you believe.” With more autonomous vehicles set to take up space on public streets, it remains to be seen how well they’ll integrate with our messy, irrational transit system.
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Pod Challenge

Virgin Hyperloop One debuts prototype travel pods in Dubai
What if you could cut the travel time between two cities from a an hour's drive to less than 15 minutes? That's Virgin Hyperloop One's plan for a high-tech, high-speed autonomous transportation system that could one day link Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And now, with the unveiling of a prototype design for the pods that will carry commuters at nearly the speed of sound through low-pressure tubes using magnetic levitation, the plan is inching closer to reality. The first hyperloop pod prototype, created by Virgin Hyperloop One in conjunction with Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), debuted last week as part of UAE Innovation Month, and it gives travelers the first sense of what a trip on the future 'loop might really look like. And, no surprise given that Richard Branson is a major investor, the vibe is very Virgin: sleek, modern, and bathed in moody colored light. The dream of hyperloop transportation has been one of tech's most hyped ideas since Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk proposed the idea with a white paper back in 2013. While the billionaire entrepreneur is not involved with this particular project, Virgin Hyperloop One has big plans of its own for the developing technology, including other on-demand travel networks linking Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Mumbai to Pune. Along with its high speed, the hyperloop is contained underground and completely autonomous, which may be a major factor in reaching the RTA's goal of making as many as 25 percent of travel in Dubai driverless by 2030. The Dubai-Abu Dhabi hyperloop is expected to one day transport up to 10,000 people per hour between the two Emirati hubs, which are located about 75 miles apart, when it opens to the public, which could be as early as 2020. The Emirati hyperloop will be anchored by a B.I.G.–designed transport hub, making it clear that even when you take time out of the travel equation, things can still still look mighty futuristic.
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Robots in Disguise

How will autonomous vehicles change the way architects think about cities?
City planning operates on decades-long cycles, while infrastructure is typically built out using forecasts that extend current trends. If self-driving vehicles are poised to deliver the revolution in urban transportation that Silicon Valley has been promising, how should urban infrastructure accommodate them? With less parking spots needed, how can designers effectively reclaim this urban space? Anticipating the Driverless City, a recent conference hosted by the AIA New York (AIANY), brought together Uber executives, planners, architects, and policymakers in pursuit of a holistic approach to adapting to life with autonomous vehicles. Speakers acknowledged the same general themes over and over again, despite their differing backgrounds. With self-driving cars possibly arriving in New York City by early 2018 and real-world tests already happening in other cities, one of the most discussed topics was the need to plan for an autonomous future as soon as possible. Nico Larco, co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative, stressed that "planners think in 30-year increments, and autonomous vehicles are already hitting the streets today. Urban planners should be terrified." Autonomous vehicles will touch on every facet of urban life, from water management through the reduction of impermeable roads, to electrical grid infrastructure, and drastically reshape the economy. Larco, and many others throughout the event spoke of the need for government to begin working with planners and policymakers to redesign cities from the ground-up. Leaning on a "people, places, policy" framework is a good starting point, as architects and planners can strategize about how autonomous vehicles could possibly affect each of the three. Sam Schwartz, former NYC Traffic Commissioner and founder of transit planning firm Sam Schwartz Engineering, described how a future society with self-driving cars could tilt towards "good," "bad," or "ugly" outcomes. The ideal scenario would be one where the use of autonomous vehicles has encouraged mass transportation use, acting to move commuters to and from high-capacity transit corridors. Because self-driving cars can pack tighter and don’t need to park, streets would be narrowed and the extra space converted to public parkland. Conversely, in a world where autonomous vehicles are owned only by individuals, pedestrians might be walled off from the street, and our roads might be more packed than ever. According to Jeff Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson/Nygaard, the way we think about self-driving cars directly stems from concepts first presented at the 1939 World’s Fair. Nearly 80 years later, architects and planners wanting to design for a future with self-driving cars, busses, and trains, will need to go beyond simply extending our current car culture.
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Fact & Fiction

Architects who democratize technology through speculation

Liam Young calls himself an “architectural storyteller.” He uses fiction and film to explore visions of the future that amplify trends and technologies already present, challenging viewers to confront a not-so-distant reality. Young, who often collaborates with science fiction writers, technologists, and urbanists, casts a wide net: In addition to his London-based think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today (cofounded with urbanist Darryl Chen), he helps run Unknown Fields Division, a roving global research studio that scours little-explored parts of the world for hints of future technologies and alternative narratives, and helms SCI-Arc’s Master of Arts in Fiction and Entertainment program. AN asked Young about his practice, his recent films, and the power of storytelling.

The Architect’s Newspaper: Let’s start by talking about Tomorrow’s Storeys, the film you produced for the Documenta exhibition in Athens this year.

Liam Young: Basically, the setup is that the evolution of Airbnb and other smart city systems has created a condition where ownership as we know it has been totally rewritten and we now just lease a full area or volume. It’s an animated film where you drift through a building, eavesdropping on conversations that were written as part of a public futurist think tank. The Athens apartment blocks [in the film] are based on the dominant building form in Athens, this housing block that’s almost conceived like Corbusier’s Dom-Ino: a concrete frame with flat slabs that are infilled across time. The film imagines a fleet of builder bots that remake, demolish, and build partition spaces and volumes as they are required. So you no longer own a piece of property, you just own volume—but that volume might shift or reform itself at any time as needed. So cities are remade based on networking technology.

And what’s the premise of your film that’s premiering at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism?

It is an abstract, non-narrative sequence of vignettes, fragments, and moments of a future Seoul, a city in which all of the hopes and dreams, fears and wonders of emerging technologies have come true. Scenes of contemporary Seoul are overlaid with seamless visual effects depicting a world where the sky is filled with drones, cars are driverless, the street is draped in augmented reality, and everyone is connected to everything. It is narrated by the disembodied voice of the city’s operating system, who tells us its story and how it produces and manages the environments we will soon all occupy.

Right now, it seems like tech companies are really driving the development of smart cities like the ones you depict. But what role do—or should—architects play?

The issue is that, for the most part, these technologies have supplanted the traditional forces that define and shape cities. The [digital] network is now a more significant infrastructure for affecting change within a city than physical public space or traditional infrastructures like road networks and water grids. So the role of architects and urbanists is rapidly diminishing. We’re interested in exploring where new forms of agency for the architect might exist when so much of what defines cities is being outsourced to large-scale tech companies.

The role of the storyteller is certainly one that I’ve kind of fashioned myself around. However, I think it goes deeper. I’m looking at [technologies that] have evolved faster than our cultural capacity to understand what they mean or what they might do. In that sense, it’s really important to imagine the implications of these technologies before they’re actually implemented. We try to explore the role of the architect as a speculator, as someone who can prototype those implications in visual and spatial mediums.

Take something like driverless car technology. A number of architecture studios are asking, “What happens to a city when the driverless car comes into being?” The problem is that car companies have already spent billions and billions of dollars developing this technology. They’ve invested so much in it that this future is going to happen whether we want it or not. [Architects] should have been running these design studios, we should have been involved in the planning meetings of Ford and General Motors ten years ago, but we weren’t. For the most part we sat by idly waiting for it to happen. If we were in those rooms $15 billion ago, we actually might have been able to make a difference in the way that these car companies are thinking.

I think that’s one of the urgent projects of our current generation of designers: To tackle imminent tech, play it out in multiple scenarios that explore desired consequences as well as unintended consequences, then feed those stories back to a general public and to the tech companies that are developing them so that we can make more informed choices about the future we want to have.

What about the traditional role of architects, even in just advocating for housing or basic infrastructure?

I don’t think the necessity for architects, as we traditionally define ourselves, is going to cease to exist. There are still going to be architects designing houses and talking about space as service infrastructure, but the role of those architects is going to fundamentally change or it’s going to rapidly diminish. I’m not advocating for the total dissolution of traditional architecture; I can’t claim that every architect should be a storyteller, but some of us need to do that in more systematic ways than we currently do.

Your film Where the City Can’t See presented a way for people to use technology to fight back—become hackers. Smart city technology is usually very top-down: even when tech companies are supposedly giving you choices, those choices inevitably benefit their business model.

That’s essentially what we are focusing on at the moment: the way that technology generates new forms of subculture. These technologies become the most interesting when they’re no longer in the hands of the companies that developed them, but when they get democratized and people start inventing their own uses for things, and we start seeing the unintended consequences of these technologies. That’s when they become really exciting.

[Another] big part of our practice is talking about the consequences of smart technologies. In order for everyone in a first-world city like New York to be running around on the latest smartphone, a whole lot of kids in Africa are going down the bottom of a mine with a gun to their head to dig out rare-earth minerals needed to make that smartphone. It’s no longer sufficient to describe those contexts as being pre-technology or pre-urban, because they’re part of an urban system, they’re part of the supply chain that produces the smart city.

So the people on the other end of the fiber-optic cable, they don’t have the latest smartphone, they’re not hooked into Nest adjusting the thermostat in their homes or uploading their data to the cloud, but they’re a consequence of the system that generates all those things for us in New York. We’re trying to tell these different kinds of stories, which all are part of the smart city—just not the smart city where we choose to point the marketing lens.